We chew the fat with Patrick Barrett, managing director of agency Simpatico PR, and find out how his initial dreams of being a fighter pilot morphed into journalism and then running his own PR agency.
What did you want to be when you were a teenager? Would your teenage self be pleased with how your career has panned out?
I initially dreamed of being a fighter pilot, which morphed into a quest to learn guitar and play in an indie rock band. Neither of these things came close to happening, but I was always interested in history and politics and exploring why things had happened and what might happen next.
So my teenage self would no doubt be bitterly disappointed with the fact that I’ve effectively flown a desk for the last 20 years or so and never got to kick out the jams to an adoring audience. I may however, have been interested to know what I’ve seen and learned in journalism and PR.
Why did you go into journalism?
Back in the early 1990s careers in journalism, advertising and media sounded exotic, glamorous and slightly edgy. I half imagined being a political correspondent, but ended up writing about retail for a magazine called SuperMarketing, which in its time was arch-rival to The Grocer.
Within weeks of starting I was meeting CEOs of supermarket chains and asking questions at press conferences – which they did lots of back then. Later, I was lucky enough to end up cover the commercial media industry as editor of Media Week at a time when digital technology was beginning to take hold and re-shape it. There were a million questions about how the internet would change things. Back then no-one knew social media and iPhones were just around the corner so traditional media were still all powerful. Writing about all this change and meeting the characters involved was incredibly absorbing.
Have you got any regrets about any decisions you have made?
Very few real regrets – a twinge of ‘what if’ maybe when I turned down a move from PR to a job at a really rather successful ad agency; but it didn’t feel right at the time. It’s usually best to trust your instincts.
Why did you move into PR?
Ten years in journalism felt like a respectable stint and time to do something new. I’ve always felt journalists who switch to PR know pretty quickly whether it will work for them or not. I knew within a few days it was going to be fascinating. You either see it as a loss of freedom or an entry into a world where you can see the full picture and help make a real contribution to business growth or organisational success.
The real joy of creative corporate communications or business thought-leadership is enabling clients to see what they could say and do and helping to make that happen. The trick is coming to the table with knowledge and the confidence to critique and change how a company sees itself or what it does. Simply processing what you’re given and delivering it to the media isn’t what PR is about.
What have been your career highlights?
Editing Media Week and creating an agency proposition that businesses buy into. Nothing under the sun is new, but content-fuelled business PR is something that if done consistently well, can make a material difference to clients. The key is the integration of journalistic questioning and content creation with client and media relations, rather than separating the two. The desire to create an agency with a team capable of delivering that mix and seeing if it could work consistently, was the real reason for launching Simpatico PR.
What are the main challenges of starting an agency?
It’s great that our industry offers the flexibility for many people to go solo. Those who take it a stage further and who haven’t got a big lump of capital to pump into the venture, will know that there’s a tipping point where you either make the leap of faith with an office an employees or you effectively retreat.
That’s the scary bit; when you become a business person for the first time as well as PR person. I decided very early on to outsource anything I wasn’t any good at like IT and book-keeping and focus on the PR bit. You do need to have a vision or a plan at least, but it’s always a work in progress and it’s not wise to get too separated from the coal face.
What are the particular challenges of your present role?
The fundamental and most interesting part of it for me anyway, has been aiming to deliver something that is tangibly different and then growing it. If you can’t deliver what you’re saying you can consistently and to a high standard, it’s time to think again.
What advice would you give anyone starting out in PR?
My micro-guide to enjoying PR would be: read more, learn to empathise with clients, colleagues and journalists, give yourself time to think, don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions and look after yourself – work is about quality not quantity.
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